Showing the soft side

There’s a new ritual we’ve been following in most of my classes. The first few minutes are all about checking in. How are people feeling? What is the general mood like? What’s on top of the mind? Would anyone like to share anything? A happy moment? An anxious one? When we began, there was some awkwardness, and when the initial shy silence wore off, it was only the more forthcoming students who spoke. These were people who would usually participate, and comprised less than 10 per cent of those in the class. In the spirit of disclosure, I too would talk about how I was feeling, and gradually, more and more students began speaking up, with some typing in the chat box or simply using emojis to convey a reaction and to indicate that they were listening. In the space of 10 minutes, we manage to establish something precious, something real: a connection that is based on our essential humanity.

Holding classes via screen has been limiting, no doubt, and we have spoken of the challenges in several issues of Teacher Plus over this past year. But it’s also forced us to learn new things and to pick up new skills. It has made us see more clearly the flaws in our systems and practices, and glimpse new opportunities. The two articles that comprise our cover theme this month speak to these learnings and offer suggestions as to how we might take them forward as we step tentatively back into our classrooms, or continue in a sometime-on, sometime-off mode.

For me, the biggest learning has been to understand that we cannot divorce the process of teaching and learning from the broader context of life. While the pandemic was unprecedented in this regard, in that it became the overarching and overriding context of our lives, changing everything, we need to recognize that even in more “normal” times, people have lives that often impinge on what they do in the classroom. This is as true for teachers as it is for students. Online teaching/learning took us all into each other’s homes; sometimes we had windows into bedrooms and living rooms and kitchens; at others we heard the sounds of a household in the background. We got a sense of what the stage-sets of our lives were like. In effect, we saw that all of us existed in diverse contexts, and these affected our functioning in very real ways.

As educators, we would like our students to find ways to rise above their contexts and grapple with ideas and gain skills. One of the reasons we separate home and school is to offer them that ‘context-free’ space that can allow them to compartmentalize. This becomes temporarily possible while they/we are physically in the classroom, but the moment we step out, life with all its complexities engulfs us.

Now, we’ve all had a first-hand glimpse of each other’s chaotic worlds, the broader context within which our lives are lived, a view into our shared vulnerabilities. Maybe this is a path towards a more empathetic classroom.

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